Sunday, June 14, 2015

The Search for the Real Craig Rice

by Jeffrey Marks

Some people ask if beginning writers should look at doing biography. I’ll agree that it’s a daunting task for someone new to writing. It usually takes me 3-5 years to complete a biography. That means that you’d better enjoy reading and writing about this person for a long time. I was fortunate in picking Craig Rice for a subject my first time out.

Part of the fun is selecting who to write about. While it would be nice to see every author be memorialized by a good biographer, there are only so many authors who have made an impact significant enough to be the subject of a biography. There are many authors who have made an impact without achieving best-sellerdom. Craig Rice achieved this status. She nearly beat Agatha Christie for paperback copies sold just after World War II.

Yet it’s more than that. Rice had a unique place in the genre. She wrote comedic mysteries that bordered on the surreal. She was the first woman mystery author to appear on the cover of Time Magazine in 1946. She was rumored to have written the Gypsy Rose Lee mysteries. All items that make Rice worth writing about.

I also look at what has been written before about this author. With Rice, I located 3-4 paragraph long biographies of the woman. In each one, all the salient facts (from name to number of husbands to number of children) were all different. That intrigued me. Why didn’t anyone know more about this woman, when she’d lived at the beginning of the information age? It seemed impossible to me, and something I wanted to learn more about. That mystery within the mystery appealed to me.

So I went on an expedition. I often say that it took me from Venice Italy (where her brother lived) to Venice California (where her ex-husband lived.) Not that I minded at all. With a woman like Rice who shed husbands and documents, the source documents about Rice were few and far between. There are approximately 365 pages of correspondence between Rice and Ned Guymon, the mystery book collector, at Bowling Green State University, which is only three hours from my home.

However, for the most part, I went back to the sources. I was very fortunate. Many of the Rice’s contemporaries were still living back in the early 1990s when I started the book. Imagine the thrill of talking to Dorothy Hughes, Margaret Millar and Harold Q. Masur about their works and what they knew about Rice. It was a joy to interview each of them. They provided me with hours of fascinating research for the book.

Rice’s family also provided material. They were surprised to find that people still read her books and were interested in what happened to her. Of course, they knew all the details and laughed to find out the permutations regarding her name and her husbands over the years.

And finally, that time period appeals to me. When I was growing up in the 1970s, I could only afford so many books. I made $2.10 an hour working at a roller disco, of all places. That money all went for books. I learned early on that I could buy a new paperback for $1.50 or I could buy 8 used paperbacks at a quarter each. Given that I read a book a day, my choice was easy.

All of those 25¢ books were written in the 1940s and 1950s. I read numerous authors back then who are nearly forgotten today. Those authors are the ones I go to first when I want a new biography subject. Rice was one such author; Boucher was another. It’s a little slice of my youth and my early enthusiasm for the genre that I get to relive every time I write a biography.

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